By Ana Arana
MEXICO CITY, Mexico — Several years ago, a network of corrupt employees of the Property and Commerce Registry here erased the mortgage registrations of a number of high-end homes. With no identified owner, the properties could then be claimed, which the employees did by re-registering the titles in their own names. The scheme was caught by an alert notary public, who reported the incident to local authorities.
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Today, it would be difficult for city employees to try the same trick. That’s because of a new app the city recently created called Real Estate Alert. The app protects homeowners by emailing them any time a transaction involving their property transpires. This means unauthorized transactions can be caught quickly, if they happen at all. Which is unlikely. Because now, the eyes of the public are watching.
The app is just one small part of Mayor Miguel Angel Mancera’s wide-ranging campaign against municipal corruption, which he launched last year.
He created a hotline for citizens to report cases of corruption, and to give them the confidence to call it he instituted whistleblower protections against retaliation, which is unusual in Mexico. Mancera also signed Mexico City’s first code of ethical conduct for local government employees. In March, Mancera very publicly dismissed Alfredo Hernandez Garcia, his head of public works, after it was revealed that Garcia’s office had given US$4.5 million in contracts to a firm where his wife works.
“Mexico City has decided to break with practices that have deep roots,” Mancera said a few weeks ago at a gathering of city leaders at Columbia University’s Law School in New York. “We are convinced that we have to professionalize public officials, strengthen the ethics code for public officials, and reform laws.”
Mancera is a lawyer who previously served as the city’s attorney general. He’s charged three other lawmen — City Attorney Jose Ramon Amieva Galvez, City Comptroller Eduardo Rovelo Pico and Police Commissioner Hiram Almeida Estrada — with responsibility for implementing the anti-corruption agenda.
The law is not their only tool, however. Much of their work is centered around cutting red tape by reducing the 45,000 transactions people make with the city each day, from building and land-use permits to civil licenses. Every transaction requiring face-to-face meetings with city staff represents an opportunity for an employee to slow the process for those unwilling to offer a bribe — or speed it up for those who will pay up.
The Mancera administration has issued an order that no transaction should take more than 20 days to be completed. More and more city business will be conducted online. “Whenever you have this many transactions between citizens and government officials,” Amieva Galvez says, “the potential for corruption is high. Because citizens look for a way out of delays and slow results.”
An entrenched problem
With a metropolitan population of 21 million, Mexico City is an enormous and complex place where petty corruption is baked into the culture. For those who can afford it, paying small bribes can get you better and faster treatment at the hospital, for example, or make police officers ignore a driving infraction. (For more on my own encounter with the police, read here.)
The Mexico City Property and Commerce Registry has digitized property records going back to the 1800s, which has helped speed its transactions. (Mexico City Property and Commerce Registry)
As a country, Mexico stands badly in terms of corruption. Transparency International ranks Mexico 103 out of 175 countries evaluated (a lower number means less corruption). estimates on the amount of money lost annually to corruption are in the billions of dollars. Similar estimates of the cost of corruption at the city level do not exist. The city’s Comptroller Agency, which is in charge of investigating corrupt government officials, is starting its own study of the impact of corruption on city income.
Corruption impacts the business climate, as well. Jose Luis Beato, president of the Mexico City chapter of the country’s largest business organization, known as Coparmex, recently told journalists that businesspersons here are accustomed to paying bribes to get city business completed. “They all have had to give money under the table to get a permit or a transaction through the system quickly,” says Beato. “We all have taken advantage of having a close friend working in government who can help us get our transactions out faster.”
Mancera’s latest anti-corruption initiative is targeted directly at the business community. Mexico became part of the Open Contracting Partnership led by the World Bank. With a US$10 billion municipal budget, Mexico City does a lot of contracting for services. As part of the partnership, the city will publish online all of its procurement contracts and key documents and data at each stage of a city contracting process.
Rose Gill Hearn, who served as the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Investigation for 12 years and has been advising Mancera as part of the Bloomberg Associates consulting team, says changes like this will make a big difference.
“Representatives of small businesses and Fortune 500 companies can now say, ‘OK, there are rules in Mexico City,” Hearn says. “It might be OK to bid on a contract, or to open a branch or office in Mexico City, because there are rules of engagement and someone to go to if someone is breaking the rules. That’s what Mayor Mancera wants, and he is brick-by-brick creating the architecture for that.”
Shorter wait times
You can see some of that architecture at the city’s Property and Commerce Registry office — where the employees who stole the titles to those homes worked. Located in a nondescript cement building in Mexico City’s commercial district, the building houses all the city’s property deeds and commercial registrations going back to the 1800s. A recent independent study by Mexico City’s branch of Transparency International found that the Registry was the one place citizens disliked the most because of archaic requirements and long waits.
Prior city administrations started digitizing records in the registry, but the Mancera administration focused on finishing the job. In the past, citizens had to wait six months to get a document that proved a property was free of tax liens. After reforms introduced early this year, that operation can be completed in 21 days, and the city hopes to shorten the time to ten days. In the past, some of the documents required to sell or buy a property were so cumbersome that city officials had to search every single owner linked to the property — going back to the 19th century — before releasing a document. The new requirements only demand that the document show the previous owner.
When I visited the Property and Commerce Registry a few weeks ago, clerks were processing title records sent by email from notary public offices that have joined a digitized system. Going electronic, City Attorney Amieva Galvez says, makes these transactions faster to process and more transparent.
The scene was far more orderly than when I have visited this office in the past: Long, serpentine lines used to make a trip to the Registry time consuming. People who worked for local notary public offices paid “expediters” known as “coyotes,” who in turn paid off Registry workers to speed up delivery of documents. This time, I noticed the lines were shorter, and there were no people circulating around offering the opportunity to get a transaction completed more quickly for a little money.
City Comptroller Eduardo Rovelo Pico says teams of inspectors from his office have been making preemptive visits to government offices like these to observe how transactions are carried out. “When a public official knows that he is being observed,” says Rovelo Pico, “he doesn’t take risks.”
A place to vent
Another key initiative is the citizen hotline for reporting corruption. This is managed by an independent organization called the Citizens Council, whose mission is to boost citizen access to city government. Any resident or government official who wants to report an incident of municipal corruption can call the hotline to report it, with a guarantee of the report remaining confidential.
Wait times at the Property and Commerce Registry office are not as long as they used to be, and the “coyotes” offering to speed up transactions in exchange for some money are gone. (Mexico City Property and Commerce Registry)
“I like the project,” says director Luis Wertman Zaslav, a former textile businessman who works pro-bono for the Citizens Council. The corruption hotline joins others run out of the council’s call center, including one that deals with suicide prevention and another that helps burglary victims navigate the process of reporting it to the police. Zaslav says his group joined Mancera’s initiative immediately because he believes that in order to “generate changes in the city, you need the society to accompany you.”
“Complaining without getting involved does not help,” Zaslav continues. “Mexico is ready for initiatives like those introduced by Mancera.”
The hotline works 24 hours a day. From January 6, when the hotline opened, through April 14, the hotline reported a total of 601 calls. A quarter of those calls were related to driver’s licenses and permits to operate public transport units. Another 22 percent were for public safety issues and 12 percent were linked to tax issues.
City Comptroller Rovelo Pico, whose office is tasked with following up on these reports, says the response so far is good, but he would like to see more complaints called in. “We need to advertise the hotline more,” he says. “We have to empower citizens, and they have to cooperate …. We have to get citizens to understand that we will keep their report anonymous and that we will investigate the officials.”
There are other signs that Mancera’s campaign against corruption has been slow to gain traction with the public. Local media have not covered the initiatives much, focusing instead on a split in Mancera’s political party and the question of whether the mayor will run for president in 2018. In a recent poll by the centrist daily Reforma, 38 percent of those surveyed said corruption in the city had increased in the last year. Eight of ten people polled said they were unhappy with how the Mancera administration has tackled the issue.
In a city where corruption has been a way of life for so long, it may take time for perceptions to change. “Look, the social fabric in this city is out of synch,” says Rovelo Pico. “The society does not like the bad public official, and the public official is fed up with citizens who do not treat him well.”
But Mancera himself maintains that if any trust in this relationship between citizens and government can be built in Mexico, it will be at the city level. “It’s precisely local governments that can generate the effect we are looking for,” Mancera said in his talk at Columbia. “This happens because local governments, municipalities, keep daily contact with the population.”